By Bradley Lane
If you are anything like me, basketball runs in your veins. I grew up playing, watching and loving basketball and have kept that close to my heart well into adulthood. The only other interest I have held for the same amount of time, my whole life really, is my deep love of film. So naturally, I am predisposed to movies that use basketball to deliver their narrative. From the classics like Hoosiers and Hoop Dreams to lesser beloved entries into the genre such as Like Mike and Space Jam, I am admittedly a sucker for basketball films. Thankfully, even with my rose-tinted glasses removed, Netflix’s new film Hustle is a clear example of some of the best the genre has to offer.
Adam Sandler stars as Stanley Sugerman, an NBA scout for the Philadelphia 76ers, who discovers a once-in-a-generation raw talent while on a scouting trip to Spain. Forgoing a career in professional basketball previously to support his daughter, real-life NBA player Juancho Hernangomez co-stars as the rough but loveable, Bo Cruz. Against the wishes of top brass at the 76ers organization, Stanley takes Bo under his wing to get him a shot at getting to the NBA.
The strength of Hustle rests in its ability to create characters the audience fully buys into. Stanley and Bo need each other, not just for the stake of their careers but to strengthen each other as individuals. Each of their character arcs are well constructed and mirror each other in ways the editing and direction cleverly helps to communicate. The emotional vulnerability present in Sandler’s and Hernangomez’s performances also creates an intimacy between the two characters that elevates Hustle past the tropes and cliches the narrative plays into, that otherwise would have made the film into a pastiche of a basketball drama.
Of course, the elephant on the court in this film is that Hustle is jam packed with NBA stars. Many serve as extended cameos without much narrative weight, like Trae Young, Kyle Lowry and Khris Middleton, however others have genuine roles that require acting ability. Young up and coming Timberwolves star Anthony Edwards has the most significant role as a competitor in the same draft class as Bo Cruz. Edwards is electric, which should come as no surprise if you’ve ever watched an interview with Edwards. He practically drowns in charisma and confidence, so it was thrilling to see him let loose in an antagonistic dramatic role.
At this point in his career, I am something of a reluctant fan of Adam Sandler. He is a proven talent when given the proper material (see Punch Drunk Love or Uncut Gems), but I typically find his comedic work sophomorish and worse, make his characters supremely unlikable. Sandler plays Sugerman with dramatic weight, however, Sandler adds a comedic edge that makes him just so endearing not even I can resist his charm. Hustle is a tropey basketball movie, I’ll be the first to admit it, but what it lacks originality, it makes up for in execution. Hustle is exclusively available on Netflix. – ⅘ stars